When should one bulldoze a piece of history?
A vexing question: for who does time belong to? If you are the custodian of a building which dates back to the fourteenth century, then, though you own the bricks and mortar, surely temporal evidence is an entirely separate commodity, accorded to you in trust on behalf of humankind?
The listing process in Britain is to guard that evidence of time. Whilst Parliament began thinking about protecting history in 1882 with an Ancient Monuments Protection Act, it was not until after the devastating bombing raids of World War II that the British sat up and began to take notice of how valuable time’s trails really are.
In 1947, an army of 300 members of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings trooped out to visit every scrap of temporal evidence and accord it a grade.
Managed by English Heritage, buildings are separated into different grades: Grade I – like Hampton Court Palace – which are of national and international importance; Grade II*, which are of regional importance, and Grade II, which are locally important good examples of a particular period of style.
But it was too late, way too late for Easthampstead Park.
As was I. I have lived in this town all my life, and never realised that just a short stroll away was a breathtaking old house. This is because it is out of town, surrounded by trees, and few of us have call to turn down the long monumental tree-lined drive which leads to its grand facade.
The grand old house is designed to awe, and awe it does.
Yet it takes us, temporally, back to just 1860, and a dastardly Marquis who stopped the temporal trail dead in its tracks to build this house.
On paper, the trail leads back much, much further, to 1320, when Edward II acquired it and rebuilt it as a house around a courtyard.
Documents investigated by English Heritage reveal that it was mentioned in 1365 as a park deep in Windsor Forest, surrounded by palings (a fence with pointy arrow tops). Famous maps of the day show it clearly sitting there in 1574 and 1607.
A royal hunting lodge a stone’s throw from Windsor, a house on a square of land surrounded by a defensive moat, the Plantaganet kings used it, issuing orders from its walls. It was one of Richard III’s favourite haunts.
Here, it is rumoured, Catherine of Aragon fled when Henry began to look elsewhere. A retreat in the forest far from the politics of court, this wise woman knew her husband well.
Charles I disparked the lodge and gave it to diplomat William Trambull in 1628, and from then on the Trambulls entertained the great and good there: Alexander Pope was a regular visitor.
I suppose, from what I know of old lodges with feet in the 1300s, it must have been dark, and damp, and draughty, and one can only take so much of living in such conditions. I well remember the Hampton Court residents, the dwellers in the ancient grace and favour apartments, complaining of just such conditions.
So the Fourth Marquis of Downshire, in 1860, knocked the whole bally lot down.
He built a very nice house. I like it. But it infuriates me: because thanks to that Marquis’s idea of improvement I shall never stand in the room in which Catherine of Aragon stood , or sit in a mediaeval hall, just a short walk from my front door, where Edward II or Richard III consulted their advisors and issued orders to control the realm.
The moment they invent Time Travel, I fully expect English Heritage to act retrospectively and rectify the whole sorry matter.